The often-cited reason not to lie concerns the harm or negative consequences lying tends to bring. This is something that both the consequentialists and deontologists agree on. Consequentialists would say since lying typically generates more harm than good, lying should be prohibited. However, consequentialists do not go so far to claim that lying is wrong in all circumstances. When it is necessary for producing the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, consequentialism would even endorse lying.
Deontologists, on the other hand, say lying has intrinsic moral significance that makes it wrong in all circumstances. This is not to say it is never justified; lying is justified when an alternative would be “more wrong”. However, even when justified, lying remains wrong – there remains a constraint against lying, the violation of which constitutes doing something wrong. I wish to talk about how such a constraint against lying can be justified.
Simply put, lying is making an untrue statement with the intention to deceive. This definition tells us two things. (1) Lying involves doing – the act of ‘telling’. By asserting X, one invites a particular belief by both uttering X and asserting the truth of X. So long as one believes that X is not true and asserts X, her assertion suffices a lie. (2) The condition “intent to deceive” stipulates that a person can only lie intentionally. As earlier said, lying is about saying something that contradicts to one’s own state of beliefs; it is not possible to lie unintentionally.
So why is lying wrong? I have three suggestions – it violates the autonomy of the person lied to; it violates the principle of respect; it violates one’s private right over one’s mind.
– To have autonomy is for one to have control over various aspects of one’s life. In general, when a person has autonomy, she can choose among various alternatives that are open to her and thereby lead the life she wants. When she is lied to, she is misinformed about certain options in her life and her senses of what she can achieve and of what needs attending to are distorted as a result. It is true that she is still making decisions about how she wants her life to be and is free to implement the choice she makes. Nevertheless, she is in fact doing a less effective job of controlling her life – options that she would have considered if she were not lied to are removed. Accordingly, her control over her life is reduced. A lie certainly interferes with one’s autonomy.
One difficulty with this view is that it is not clear whether telling a lie will always interfere with another’s autonomy. Suppose some stranger lies to me that it was snowing in Toronto yesterday. And suppose all aspects of my life are unrelated to Toronto now and then. It is almost for certain that my autonomy will not be affected upon hearing this lie. And since it is a well-known fact that Toronto does get heavy snowfalls in April, it is unlikely that one particular day of snow will make a difference to my future choice. So in what sense, regarding my autonomy, has the person who lied to me about snow in Toronto done something wrong?
– Another reason lying can be wrong is that it violates the principle of respect. The liar produces an effect in me that I do not want to and cannot produce in myself. In a similar way, the liar cannot agree to the very same effect being produced in himself. Regardless of the consequences, his action violates the principle of respect, in the sense that he has set up an exploitative relation that will inflict harm on me. The liar is like a counterfeiter: he issues counterfeit bills, but he does not want the market to be flooded with counterfeit currency and he certainly does not want to get back his own counterfeit bill. The liar unfairly affirms a unilateral principle in respect to another person’s freedom and rationality.
But then one might ask what if the liar does not mind getting back a counterfeit bill? What if the liar wants to be lied to? There are certainly many common examples of people wanting to be lied to. (“No – you look great in that outfit.”)
– Which brings us to the third justification, that lying violates one’s private right over one’s mind. The person who tells a lie wrongfully claims a part of another person’s mind. In normal cases, the kinds of information that are permitted by the owner to lay claim to her mind are the ones that are processed consciously and knowingly by the mind’s owner. And the information that gets processed under this conscious and knowing process cannot be lies. It is logically impossible for one consciously and knowingly to allow a lie to lay claim to one’s mind. For if we consciously know that it is a lie, then it is not a lie anymore. Lying intrudes one’s mind by sneaking in through the back door where the normal conscious and knowing process of information-checking is not present. A lie, such as a white lie, can be extremely useful in bringing about good consequences. But usefulness does not erase the wrongness of an action – lying can be both useful and wrong. What makes lying wrong is not the content of the information but the way this information has entered the mind. The route the teller has taken to get the information into one’s mind entails the wrongness of their action. Sneaking in through the back door is what makes lying wrong.